Authorities in northwestern China's troubled Xinjiang region have detained 17 people for encouraging the region's mostly Muslim Uyghurs to fast during the holy month of Ramadan, overseas rights groups said on Monday.
Five Uyghurs were taken away by plainclothes police in Qaghiliq county (in Chinese, Yecheng county) near the Silk Road city of Kasghar on Friday, the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) said as Ramadan began.
And police in Kuqa county, Aksu (Akesu) prefecture, detained 12 people at the gates of a major mosque in the county town, taking them away in minivans, WUC spokesman Dilxat Raxit told RFA's Mandarin Service.
"According to our sources, the police said they were spreading propaganda at the gates of the mosque about observing Ramadan," he said.
Beijing has implemented strict rules in Xinjiang forbidding anyone under the age of 18 from following a religion, levying hefty fines against families whose children study the Quran or fast during Ramadan.
Parents and guardians of Uyghur children and teens are frequently pressured by local officials into signing pledges promising not to allow them to take part in any religious activity.
Muslim members of the ruling Chinese Communist Party are forbidden to openly follow their religion, while state-run organizations are routinely ordered to encourage everyone to eat during daylight hours, sources in the region have told RFA.
"The Chinese government has forbidden Uyghurs from leaving their places of residence during Ramadan, and if they do leave, they have to give the authorities details of their itinerary or destination," Raxit said.
Payouts to mosques
In the regional capital Urumqi, which saw 200 people die in ethnic violence in 2009, officials are handing out payouts to the city's mosques in return for their cooperation with security personnel during Ramadan.
"They want the mosque staff to assist the security personnel who are installed in the mosques 24 hours a day to carry out surveillance," Raxit said on Monday.
"They want to confirm the identities of every person who comes to pray at the mosque."
The texts of any sermons preached during Ramadan must also be passed by Beijing's censors before they can be delivered, Raxit said.
In Ili (Yili) prefecture in the north of Xinjiang, officials were being ordered to read guidelines issued to Communist Party members on party discipline and on the punishments meted out to officials who fast, before signing pledges not to observe Ramadan, he said.
Muslim officials caught observing the fast face expulsion from their jobs and from the party, according to the regulations.
Meanwhile, Uyghur-run restaurants are forbidden to shut their doors during fasting hours, according to a government directive.
A Han Chinese resident of Xinjiang surnamed Zhang said some will seek to evade the policy, however.
"I asked some Uyghurs about this, and they said they will use indirect methods, such as saying that there were no customers ... or they will prepare all of the food in advance," Zhang said.
"Anyone who takes a government salary or pension has been ordered not to observe Ramadan, so they have to comply, because the government is their source of income," he said.
Zhang said the measures began to be implemented only following the July 5, 2009 riots in Urumqi, which exile groups said were sparked by police firing on an unarmed crowd of demonstrators.
"They never used to have these policies in all the decades before July 5," Zhang said. "But they are seldom written down in black at white. No official will actually say that they don't want people to fast."
China last Wednesday issued a white paper lauding "unprecedented" levels of religious freedom in Xinjiang, official media reported.
It said "the proliferation and spread of religious extremism is being effectively contained" in the region, while claiming that "no citizen suffers discrimination or unfair treatment for believing in, or not believing in, any religion."
"The government's capacity to administer religious affairs is constantly being strengthened," the document said.
Raxit said the white paper was "unacceptable."
"Uyghurs are subject to all manner of government bans and controls on their religious activity," he said. "Public anger will lead to more disturbances, and Beijing will bear the political responsibility."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Pan Jiaqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.